Judge sides with Meta and Google, puts California child privacy law on hold

NetChoice 'likely to prevail' in First Amendment argument, court rules

A federal judge in California has blocked the state's online kids' safety law from going into effect while a lawsuit brought by Meta, Google, and other tech giants moves through the courts.

The California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act (CAADDCA aka AB 2273), signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom a year ago, was set to take effect in 2024. It requires, among other things, that businesses act in the "best interests of children," and by "children" it means anyone under 18. It also requires websites to verify users' ages in the name of protecting kids' privacy.

NetChoice, an internet trade association whose members include Amazon, Google, Meta, TikTok and Twitter, last December filed a lawsuit arguing that AB 2273 is unconstitutional because it violates America's First Amendment online speech protections and regulates behavior that takes place outside of California. 

The legal challenge also says the California law's data tracking and storage requirements conflict with the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which governs how websites handle kids' data.

In February, the trade group also filed a request for a preliminary injunction while its legal challenge to the California law proceeded.

On Monday, a federal district court in northern California granted the preliminary injunction after ruling that NetChoice had shown "it is likely to prevail on its claim that enforcement of the CAADDCA violates the First Amendment." [PDF]

Chris Marchese, director of the NetChoice Litigation Center, applauded the decision.

"We appreciate the district court's thoughtful analysis of the First Amendment and decision to prevent regulators from violating the free speech and online privacy rights of Californians, their families and their businesses as our case proceeds," Marchese said in a statement. "We look forward to seeing the law permanently struck down and online speech and privacy fully protected."

A spokesperson for California Attorney General Rob Bonta told The Register: "We are disappointed by the decision and will respond in court as appropriate."

NetChoice has also won an injunction to stop a similar law in Arkansas from taking effect.

In April, a coalition led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) including Reset Tech, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, and former government officials filed an amicus brief [PDF] defending the California Age-Appropriate Design Code against the NetChoice lawsuit.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, the national Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) faces broad opposition as US lawmakers return from their August recess and move forward with that proposal.

In addition to big-tech advocates like NetChoice, KOSA has also drawn the ire of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other digital privacy advocates, with the EFF calling it "one of the most dangerous bills we've seen in years." ®

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